In 1996, film audiences were introduced to a young, Scottish, heroin-fuelled hooligan. Skinny as a stick, and eyes bright with mischief, we first met him when he was running full-tilt through the streets of Edinburgh…in the hopes of getting away with a crime.
In 2017, film audiences meet that same lad again; eyes with a few lines around them now, and a few much-needed pounds on his healthy physique. Now though, he is running-in-place in a gym on a treadmill.
A coy call-back? Or an apt metaphor?
It’s been twenty years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) walked away from his morally-compromised friends with a bag filled with sixteen thousand pounds.
Much has changed…much has stayed the same.
Spud (Ewen Bremner) remains a junkie. Try as he may to clean up his act, fly right, and provide for his son…he continues making small mistakes, and small mistakes lead to big mistakes. Eventually it always leads back to smack.
Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is still a hooligan, serving a 25-year prison sentence, and more than fed-up with it. After engineering his escape, Begbie returns to Edinburgh in-search of his former life, his former mates, and the money he believes is rightfully his.
Sick-Boy, finally going by his Christian name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), is running his aunt’s failing pub. At least, that’s what he tells people. In-truth, he is working with a prostitute (Anjela Nedyalkova), extorting her johns for money. Their end-game is to build a brothel, and rip-off their clientele the old-fashioned way.
Back into all of this madness walks Renton. Twenty years clean from the heroin that almost killed him as a lad, and living most respectfully of the lot. He is newly separated from his long-time love, and still bears the scorn of Simon and Begbie for the money he stole. He agrees to work with the former, while steering clear of the latter, in an attempt to regain some traction in life, and perhaps atone for the sins of his past.
But is it, perhaps, better to leave the past behind?
Time and time again, T2 TRAINSPOTTING seems hellbent on warning of the dangers of living in the past. There’s a specific moment where Simon hollers out the quote at the top of this review to Renton when they and Spud gather at Tommy’s burial site. The film suggests that at-best, nostalgia can be a melancholy experience…and at worst, it can prompt backsliding into bad habits. The thing is that it is in us to most remember the excitement and joy of years gone by without completely recalling the mistakes and misery. Hear an old song? Call out an old joke? Watch the room light-up with smiles. Ask aloud where something went wrong and you’ll hear crickets.
Perhaps that’s because connecting the dots from then to now is just too painful for those who didn’t have everything work out for them. It’s palpable in Renton’s new spin on his urgent and iconic “Choose Life…” rant. In a stunt that seems practically impossible, Renton updates it for life in the new century, and the result is even more cynical than the original. Is it because he is a more cynical person overall? Or because he has been reminded of his carefree younger self, and an attitude he used to own, and realized that at best, he can now only rent that same sort of urgency.
Renton is not who he was – a quick recoil from the opening drum beats of Iggy Pop cement that fact. The question is, in the light of nostalgia, is he better…or worse?
When placed next to Spud, he is clearly better. He is a man who has silenced his darkest demon, and truly got out. That smile that he flashed at the end of the film twenty years ago wasn’t the smile of a boy who was off to live the high life…it was the smile of a boy booking the a ticket on the next train away. It was the smile of a boy who had cheated death and got away with the swindle.
But like so many lucky breaks, the swindle was only a facilitator – illicit means to a temporary end. And make no mistake: even twenty years is, indeed, “temporary”.
That his story brings him back into Simon’s orbit means he is worse. He never should have been in the room with him, never sat across a table. To say nothing of the risk to his safety, everything he has learned on the straight-and-narrow should tell him that “Sick Boy” doesn’t choose to walk that path. He may not answer to the old moniker anymore, and may be better-dressed…but he is still a walking, talking vice. He is a fix that leads to temporary distraction, and high amounts of pain. Renton should see this at first blush.
He probably does, but he doesn’t care…meaning he didn’t learn a damned thing in the last twenty years, and that makes him “worse”.
Make mistakes in your youth? You get to chalk it up to the folly of youth. Make mistakes as a grown adult? You’re foolish, selfish, dickish, or some other “ish”…and that is the lesson of T2 TRAINSPOTTING. Linger too long thinking about days gone by and all of your energy gets you nowhere. You will run full-tilt on that treadmill, but not advance even a measly metre.
Underneath this entire fable though, is the key point that contradicts it. We have not gathered again just to see what has become of Renton, Begbie, Sick-Boy, et al. We have gathered to glimpse reference after reference to an iconic film of the late 90’s. While the plot to get rich quick, and keep Begbie at-bay is every bit as boisterous and snide as its original tale, it is peppered far too often with familiar soundtrack cues…and poses recreated.
The film that wants to warn of the dangers of delving too deep into the past, is itself a deep delve into the past. Seems self-defeating. However, T2’s self-awareness that it does what it warns against doing is precisely keeps this good film from turning sour.